As a former newspaper reporter, I remember explaining to multiple readers the difference between a column and a general news article.
For me, as for anyone else who is well-versed in the industry, it was real simple. A column was an opinion piece and a news story had no commentary or wasn’t designed to influence the readers’ perspective or attitude.
Or as a reader once summed it up: “So, if your picture is beside the article, it’s a column?”
Even though I was asked to write a weekly column along with my other reporting duties, I never considered myself to be a strong columnist. Mainly, because I’m not that opinionated. Or I didn’t strive to stir up controversy.
I left that newspaper position in April 2009, right before Twitter exploded with so much opinion and commentary by its users. Twitter might have made me a better columnist!!
We started our Leadership and Media Strategies (COM 6610) course last week discussing the Diffusion of Innovations. Social media is one of the innovations that is utilized by communication professionals, athletes, celebrities, community members and anyone who enjoys sharing their opinion through a Facebook post, Instagram picture or 140 word count on Twitter.
One of the benefits of social media is the opportunity the public has to share its opinion and to craft it in an influential way. I may not have as many Twitter followers as an Anderson Cooper, Jimmy Fallon or Chipper Jones, but I can still choose to be an opinion leader through these avenues.
Using the Diffusion of Innovations, it seems opinion leaders continue to shape our society in a quick fashion, whether as early adopters or an early majority.
Opinion leaders help shape the political landscape.
Dr. Pamela Rutledge described the importance of opinion leaders–through social media efforts–during political races in a January 2013 article, “How Obama Won the Social Media Battle in the 2012 Presidential Campaign,” which was published in the National Psychologist magazine.
“Social media creates a new political dialogue. It takes the power of political messaging away from the mass media model and places it firmly into peer-to-peer, public discourse. In the 1950s, sociologists Lazersfeld and Katz proposed a two-step model of communications. Their model proposed that opinions are not formed through direct information from mass media but through individual interactions with opinion leaders who were similar in demographics, interests, and socio-economic factors to those who they influenced. In other words, opinion leaders are the people you connect with on your social networks, such as family, friends, colleagues and shared-interest group members,” Rutledge wrote. “Social media also allows information and opinions to travel across networks, like ripples in a pond, amplifying ideas and allowing each person to participate as an opinion leader through media production and distribution, not just by passive consumption.”
Politicians and their teams don’t have to solely rely on traditional radio or newspaper advertisements anymore because public opinion is so prevalent and important in these realms.
How important are these public opinions?
In a Washington Post story published on Oct 17, it was revealed the National Science Foundation, a federal agency whose mission is to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national healthy, prosperity and welfare; and to secure the national defense,” is funding a project to collect and analyze one’s Twitter data.
The purpose of this nearly $1 million project is to pinpoint “social pollution” and to study how these campaigns spread. Another goal is to track political speech and “keep track of which Twitter accounts are using hashtags such as #teaparty and #dems. It estimates users’ ‘partisanship.’ It invites feedback on where specific Twitter users, such as the Drudge Report, are “truthy” or “spamming.” And it evaluates where accounts are expressing “positive” or “negative” sentiments toward other users.’”
If the influence of opinion leaders wasn’t significant, this study would be unnecessary.
Opinion leaders also make up a huge piece of the sports landscape.
While I’m not very politically-savvy, I do consider myself a sports fanatic. One of the main purposes I’m a Twitter user is to “follow” those personalities or individuals who provide a quality opinion about a particular team or sport. Sure, like all users, I can see what my friends post, but my top intention is to gauge professional opinions. I’m a big Atlanta Braves fan, and if there is something written or analyzed about the franchise, I’m going to be aware of it on Twitter because of my interest in various opinion leaders.
Professional communicators and athletes make up a huge part of the opinion leaders in the Twitter world, and it’s not rare for these public figures to monitor the conversation being said about them on the site.
In a January 2013 USA Today article, “The good and bad of Twitter and college athletes,” Nicole Auerbach discussed a study published in the International Journal of Sport Communication.
Even certain student-athletes have the urge to see the conversation tossed about being discussed by leaders.
“Assistant professors Blair Browning of Baylor and Jimmy Sanderson of Clemson found that student-athletes dealt with critical tweets in one or more of the following ways: 1) Ignoring it; 2) Using it as motivation; 3) Blocking users sending nasty tweets; or 4) Responding to critics or tweeting a general response about working harder (or “subtweeting – not directly responding to a Twitter user but responding to a subject matter in general.”
“Browning and Sanderson began their research after they observed that when high-profile athletes at their schools performed poorly, they still rushed to check Twitter and see what people were saying about them during and after games….’It made me realize these guys are drawn to it, and it’s become so ingrained in them to want to know what people say,’ Browning said. ‘These guys now have the avenue to look up directly what people are saying. What Twitter has opened up is what people are saying about them.’”
With so much freedom on Twitter, comes tremendous responsibility for users to make sure proper discipline is maintained. One errant post can damage the reputation of an opinion leader.
Simon Sinek’s TED Talk video from this week’s assignments focused on leaders and the influence they maintain by acting, communicating and thinking different than others around them. One of the examples he used was Martin Luther King Jr., and his place in history. It’s amazing to think how much history could have been altered if opinion leaders had the avenues back then to express their thoughts and feelings as we do today. In the case of Martin Luther King Jr., there’s no doubt the hate would have been more rampant if social media existed, but he and his party could have utilized such a powerful tool to preach their vision to an entirely new crowd.
Or the Wright brothers could have had the country captivated with a daily Twitter feed, tracking their progress for the public to see. Aviation experts and enthusiasts could have then joined in the conversation and expressed their public opinion.
Or imagine if opinion leaders could have changed the course of history or significant events through social media avenues.
We’ll never know the impact that might have occurred, but there’s no doubt opinion leaders are here to affect the future.